Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Lene Kaaberbøl, Agnete Friis: The Boy In The Suitcase

Stories about human trafficking have been in vogue for the past few years, so it’s no surprise that The Boy In The Suitcase tries to capitalize on the slave trade’s place in the public consciousness. Although Danish writers Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis are known for their fantasy and children’s novels, Suitcase expands their range to show the seedy underside of banal Norwegian life, complete with Lithuanian hookers and illegal organ transplants. But The Boy In The Suitcase is more interested in its own bully pulpit and left-field reveals than the grander implications of the world it portrays.


Bounding between Lithuania and Denmark, the novel centers on Sigita, whose 3-year-old son is kidnapped, and Nina Borg, a Red Cross worker who discovers the boy inside a suitcase she picks up for a friend. Realizing the bag was meant for someone else, Nina goes on the run to protect her accidental charge. As the women’s stories converge, the players surrounding them—the kidnappers, Nina’s husband, and the man behind it all—each get their own chapters.

Following a mystery from every character’s point of view is intriguing at first, but the plot structure sucks the tension from half the book. The chapters where Sigita searches for her lost child heavily suggest he’s dead or has been sold into sex slavery. Nina’s chapters make it obvious that Sigita’s fears are misplaced and she’s following false leads, which makes it harder to share Sigita’s terror, and makes her sections a little dull.

On the other hand, Nina’s chapters are riveting, and masterfully play up the real menace large men can have for a small, unarmed woman and child. Knowing violence is just around the corner for Nina creates a through-line of tension that serves the book well. But crime novels need thrilling, logical conclusions that take the tension somewhere, and Suitcase doesn’t stick the landing, thanks to an ending that focuses on a nonsensical curveball revelation, an abrupt sex scene, and a seemingly unrelated flashback that might be setting up a sequel.

The unstructured ending is particularly frustrating, since the novel finds enough time earlier on to wax self-righteous about immigration and sex workers. Every time an immigrant appears in the book, the authors note how dire being undocumented is, as if they believe bludgeoning readers with stock phrases will forcibly change minds. Ultimately, their political agenda distracts from Suitcase’s propulsive narrative. Had Kaaberbøl and Friis spent more energy on their protagonist’s backstory and less on platitudes about Denmark’s current population crisis, the denouement would pack a punch. Instead, it feels out of place, marring the work that came before it.